An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Daniel Gustav AndersonDaniel Gustav Anderson is presently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His interests include critical theory, ecology, and European and South Asian traditions of dialectical thinking. He is the author of "Of Syntheses and Surprises: Toward a Critical Integral Theory", "Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics" and "Sweet Science:” A Proposal for Integral Macropolitics", which have been published in Integral Review.

Prajna on
the Left?

In Reply and Gratitude
to Raphael Foshay

Daniel Anderson

Foshay, Raphael. “Tension on the Left: Buddhist Ethics and Postmodernism in Habermas and Wilber. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice 4:3 (2009), 127-140.

I would like to point out that Foshay's argument, while presented mildly, presents a direct challenge to Wilberian theory.

The category of the post-metaphysical is unsettled. This is good news. How so?

In “Such a Body,” I argue that even though Wilber claims his doctrine to be post-metaphysical, it is not so because that doctrine relies on a historicist ontology which can only be described as metaphysical. I then propose the outline of a post-metaphysical integral theory which is predicated on an attempt to express the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination or co-causality through the discourse of Marxist (and other post-Hegelian) categories. It is fair to say that one of my assumptions is that such a thing is possible and reasonable: that enough points of contact exist between Madhyamaka and Marxist discourses (inclusive of dialectical materialism, forms of structuralism, and Critical Theory) for this to be coherent.

I bring this up not because I imagine Foshay read my work, but because the two essays follow closely on each other conceptually. To the point:

Raphael Foshay's 2009 essay complicates the assumptions behind the preliminary approach I have taken by examining a hypothetical relationship between critical theory and Buddhism, specifically staging a dialogue between Jurgen Habermas and Madhyamaka. The stakes in this encounter, as in my earlier essay, concern Wilber's deployment of the concept of the post-metaphysical, given that Habermas and Richard Rorty developed that concept. Foshay posits that Habermasian theory of communicative action (or communicative ethics) and Buddhist ethics may inform one another. There are four claims here: what Buddhism can teach Habermas; what Buddhism can learn from Habermas; what Habermas can learn from Buddhism; what Habermas can teach Buddhism. Foshay expresses these claims as follows. Buddhism presents an ethical system in which metaphysical claims are irrelevant, but in which social and political engagement is absent before the intervention of “modernity”; communicative action can contribute a rigorous social and political engagement to Buddhism presented in this way, while gaining a way out of the distinction between metaphysical and post-metaphysical in which Foshay finds Habermas bogged down.

Three of these claims are well-argued and warranted. I agree that the distinction between the metaphysical and the post-metaphysical that I found rhetorically convenient in “Such a Body” is conceptually soft in the light of the Madhyamaka doctrine of two truths, although I would express this a bit differently from Foshay: the lesson of Madhyamaka is that metaphysical claims resolve into emptiness, which is to say that ultimately the only positive claim of Madhyamaka is that it is possible to interrogate any and all discursive positions into incoherence, leaving silence (“form is emptiness”) and a provisional sort of ontology (“emptiness is form”). And I agree that Habermas could find this a useful position to consider (and by extension Ken Wilber). I agree with Foshay that Buddhists would do well to study not only Habermas but critical social theory generally and broadly, especially those Buddhists who espouse any form of “engaged Buddhism;” on this point, Ken Knabb's essay “Evading the Transformation of Reality” should be essential reading (along with Knabb's work on the situationists).

However, Foshay's claim that Buddhism is traditionally a “non-worldly” or “largely apolitical tradition” (p. 136) particularly the Mahayana Buddhism he discusses in his essay, is contradicted by the historical record. Specifically, Foshay asserts that Buddhism de-emphasizes “social-political emancipation” in favor of a subjective spiritual orientation; Buddhism “grounds the teachings in an ontology, a cosmology, and a psychology” instead (p. 129). It is true that Buddhism does begin, in the doctrine of dependent origination, with a particular kind of ontology (of which more below); as already mentioned, it is a peculiar and provisional one that is odds with the ontological absolutes of more familiar traditions such as the Idealism of the Romantic period. But it does not follow from this that Buddhism is somehow consistently “withdrawn” in doctrine or practice “from active engagement in its national settings and their political regimes” any more than any other world religion, as Foshay claims it is (p. 129). Demonstrating this might be as simple as pointing to the rather conspicuous example of bodhisattva King Ashoka (circa 304--232 BCE). Ashoka was not an isolated instance.

Looking at the recent scholarship in English on Indian Mahayana, one can readily point to Ronald Davidson's Indian Tantric Buddhism for examples of how the Buddhist tradition was transformed in the light of social engagement and changing social needs in doctrine, practice, and social praxis. Buddhist institutions were instrumental in the social and political orders of pre-modern Tibet, Korea, and Japan, where the temples were not only integrated with the political establishment, but were in no small measure the political establishment and the means of social cohesion. Tantric Buddhism was introduced in Japan not as some kind of contemplative means of liberation, but as a way to protect and harmonize the nation, as for example Paul Groner's work on the Tendai school (Ryogen and Mount Hiei is his best book) demonstrates. Further, Buddhist enlightenment was not understood exclusively as the business of the singular subject in pre-modern Buddhism. Peter Hershock's Liberating Intimacy demonstrates one instance of this. The great Tibetan master Sakya Pandita (1182–1251 CE) gives practical advice for kings and rulers in his Treasury of Good Advice (published in English as Ordinary Wisdom), writing into a context where there is no meaningful distinction between political organization and monastic organization.

This lacuna in Foshay's argument may have consequences for his understanding of modernity as presented in the “Tensions” essay. It undercuts his claim that Habermasian thought meets an objective need for a Buddhism presumed to be socially and politically detached. Its contrary, that Buddhist doctrines and institutions do indeed demonstrate an active social and political commitment and have from the Indian period, supports my position that there may be some value in trying to think Buddhist concepts which have had much relevance to social issues historically through the discourse already made available to us by critical theory. Critical theory is a useful resource in this context because, like Madhyamaka, it insists on rigorously pointing to the limits of reason by means of dialectical reason.

Finally, I would like to point out that Foshay's argument, while presented mildly, presents a direct challenge to Wilberian theory. As I had claimed in “Such a Body,” Foshay also claims that Buddhist emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna is synonymous with dependent origination. This means it is not identical to Spirit or One or Self as taught by the likes of Schelling and Aurobindo. Buddhism generally and Nagarjuna specifically aim for a middle path between nihilism and eternalism. Wilber is clearly operating as an eternalist, especially in his treatment of historical time as progressive and Providential. This is wholly at odds with traditional Buddhist accounts of time and history as progressive decline into ages of increasing nastiness (c.f. Kali Yuga or Mappo). Consequently, Wilber cannot take up Nagarjunian dialectics without doing damage to the theory of history that undermines the argument of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, taken as definitive in much of the work in integral studies following it, or without doing violence to Nagarjunian dialectics. While Wilber may be influenced in some respects by Buddhist discourse, it is not unfair to say that “Wilberian Buddhism” is a contradiction in terms.

Further, Foshay's essay challenges Wilber on the distinction between the metaphysical and post-metaphysical, which opens onto a discussion in the work following upon Wilber on the deployment of that distinction. It has me reconsidering my understanding of it. As I said at the top of this piece, as it provides an opportunity to think this through to a more supple set of concepts, a correction I intend to put to use in my own work and for which I am grateful.

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